By now most people are aware of organized labor’s unfortunate recent history, aware that the House of Labor has failed in numerous attempts to unionize Walmart. Despite several well-publicized campaigns?despite the expenditure of staggering amounts of money and countless hours of canvassing?labor has failed in every attempt to organize even one of Walmart’s approximately 4,000 U.S. stores (employing 1.4 million workers). That’s a shocking statistic. Sisyphus comes to mind.
But what people may not know is that, over the years, stubbornly non-union Walmart has spawned several grassroots employee groups dedicated to doing exactly what labor unions are doing?i.e., improving wages, benefits and working conditions. While the prospect of signing a union card may still scare the bejeezus out of them, Walmart employees aren’t stupid or self-destructive. Give them credit for paying attention and wanting to improve their lot.
Although employees complain of low wages, lousy working conditions, and a lack of respect from supervisors, their next logical step?the move to unionize?has been effectively thwarted by Walmart management. Not only are workers constantly threatened, intimidated and bombarded with anti-union propaganda (surveillance cameras in the parking lot can spot union organizers approaching employees), they have witnessed firsthand the horrors of workplace democracy.
Consider: When workers in a Canadian store voted to join a union, Walmart management immediately closed the store, shut it down, shuttered it, and sent everyone home. Happy now? they said. Happy not having a job? The message to Walmart employees couldn’t be clearer: When seeking union representation, you need to know that the cure is going to be worse than the disease.
The latest incarnation of one of these grassroots groups is called the Organization for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart, for short), dedicated, in principle, to improving working conditions through management-employee cooperation. But the difference in this group, as opposed to previous ones, is that it’s being assisted by a big-time labor union, the UFCW (United Food and Commercial Workers).
Clearly, the UFCW is attempting to gain a foothold by playing a less conspicuous role. Hoping not to raise hackles or invite instant rejection, organized labor comes not as solicitor of union affiliation, but as an interested and helpful third party. Instead of aggressively asking Walmart employees to join the union, the union is respectfully asking Walmart employees if it can join them. Think of the approach as a form of courtship.
Of course, the obvious question skeptical Walmarters and others will ask is: If these homegrown committees are effective in improving the employees’ economic livelihood and working conditions, why do Walmarters need a union? Why is the union trying to muscle in? What are these union guys looking for? More power? Additional union dues?
The answer: These grassroots committees don’t work. Historically, these committees have been little more than window-dressing, phony attempts by management to convince working people they have a legitimate voice in the way they’re managed. Which is why there have been so many of them, and which is why management has absolutely no fear of them. These ad hoc committees are pacifiers.
In truth, the only way employees can be guaranteed clearly defined wages, benefits and working conditions is when those items are presented in a legally binding contract. Company promises and assurances?even when written on parchment and encased in Plexiglas?are close to meaningless. The only real form of self-determination a worker has is access to the collective bargaining process.
Even though it’s a terrible time for unions, if organized labor is going to have any lasting credibility it will need to show it can break Walmart’s death grip on the workforce. Short of that, labor is going to continue to appear both outmanned and outgunned. Give the UFCW credit for being nimble-minded and adaptable. Easing into the environment slowly and carefully makes absolute sense.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org